Picking the right scent for those on your gift list

A fragrance lover offers suggestions to ensure your perfume choices don’t stink

ajohnson@newsobserver.comDecember 12, 2012 

  • Tips for buying A few tips for buying fragrance, courtesy of Allure magazine Buying for a woman: • Study her style. Look for fragrances by fashion designers whose clothes she admires, even if the clothes aren’t within her reach. • Try rollerball versions of scents you think she likes. They’re less expensive than traditional sprays. Buying for a man: • Find out his favorite scent, then ask a salesman to recommend something similar. In other words, stay in the same fragrance family. • If he likes your favorite scent, get him the pour homme version of what you wear.

The scent of a woman – or a man – can stir strong memories. Perhaps that’s the reason perfume sales soar during the holiday season.

But finding the right scent for someone is tricky. So we turned to Alyssa Harad for help. She wrote “Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride” (Viking), a memoir about how falling for fragrance transformed her life.

“The advice I always give about buying perfume for other people is: don’t,” Harad said via email. “Narrow the overwhelming options with a selection of samples and a gift certificate and then let your friend or beloved have the pleasure of the final choice. After all, it’s their skin.”

Still, when we stubbornly presented her with a few personality types we might buy a scent for, Harad graciously played along. (If you can’t find her fragrance choices locally, she recommends www.luckyscent.com.)

Type 1

She’s a independent type with her own money, a strong sense of style, and a selection of companions on her iPhone. Someone with a long memory might say she would have worn “Charlie” were she living 30 years ago. She’s not fussy, but classic, and while she wants to leave an impression, she’d hate to think you’d remember something other than her sharp intelligence. Not that she doesn’t know she’s attractive.

Harad: I’m not sure what you mean by “companions,” but aside from that (and the money) this lady sounds suspiciously like most of the serious perfume collectors I know. Leave the mainstream stuff behind and proceed directly to the niche and prestige lines, muttering words like “woody,” “incense,” and “leather” under your breath. You can start with the superb Chanel Exclusif line – for my money, the 2.5 oz bottles, for $110, are one of the best bargains in the perfume world right now. If she runs true to her stereotype the cool/warm iris-leather of Cuir de Russie, the smoky vetiver of Sycomore, or the rich, nutty-musky restraint of Rue Cambon 31 will do just fine. If you want to mix it up a bit, try the spare, tender green iris of La Pausa 28, the clean, polished prettiness (it’s like a very expensive shampoo but with depth and presence) of Beige.

If she has a wicked streak, smell some of the Comme des Garcons line on your way out – the spicy eponymous original, or anything from the incense line – like the Russian pine forest feel of Zagorsk, or the warm spiciness or Ourzazate – are good places to begin. If you insist on buying a full bottle for her, save the receipt so she can return it and get what she wants – you know she will, anyway.

Type 2

She’s trendy, always into the new thing. She doesn’t even try to put her own spin on the latest styles, choosing to just devour what’s hot whole and then start again next season. Her closet overflows as does her vanity.

Harad: Whatever you get her is going to disappear into the pile. Let’s make it the bright pink Candy from Prada and maybe it will catch her eye when it pops up to the surface now and then. Candy is a high-quality, sophisticated pop song of a perfume – its caramel notes are based on the chewy, resinous scent of benzoin, and its vanilla sweetness is tempered with a touch of smoke and lightened by iris. In short, it’s fun, but it’s still Prada. She’ll need something else for summer – the sweetness will be suffocating in the heat – but she’ll be ready to move on by then anyway, won’t she?

Type 3

He/She is young and hasn’t figured it out yet, “it” being who she/he is and that scent can be a powerful force. He believes the Axe commercials. She believes a nice soap smell is plenty good.

Harad: If I didn’t consider it a public service to wean people off of Axe I’d say you should just leave these two alone. But I do. So take that young man by the hand and lead him gently toward the Hermes counter, where pretty much anything is fair game (most of the Hermes line is “shared,” i.e., worn by both genders). Terre d’Hermes, a flinty, mineral vetiver that manages to be both unique and reassuringly handsome is particularly good, and the bright green leaves and tart juice of Eau d’Orange Verte are brisk enough to clear a path through the fug of the average junior high hallway. For a similar style at a more affordable price, try Claus Porto’s Musgo Real Cologne No. 1, in Orange Amber – it doesn’t have as much heft, but then it’s harder to over-apply, too.

As for her, why not begin with fragrant soap and sneak in the perfume on the side? Pacifica makes wonderful, natural-smelling soaps in a range of scents from jasmine and lemon blossom to citrus, sandalwood and amber, and sell solid perfumes in the same scent range. They come in pretty, colorful tins, are inexpensive enough to be collectable, and are remarkably good for their price point.

Type 4

She’s in a bit of a rut. She’s used scents before; a collection of bottles sit on her table, probably a decade old. Yes, sometimes she still uses them. She likes a floral, or was it a citrus? The girl could use some inspiration in finding a signature scent.

Harad: First of all, tell her not to throw those old perfumes away. Then send them to me. (Half of them have probably been reformulated by now and are collector’s items.) Next, order a deluxe sampler set and let her browse to her heart’s content. You will have to do this over the Internet, but since you’re not settling on a single scent it doesn’t matter. If you are on a budget, the best deal without a doubt is from the California perfumer Ineke Ruhland ( www.ineke.com), who sells a gorgeous box with samples of her whole (excellent) line for $25. If you then purchase a full bottle, you are credited the price of the sampler set. You can smell some of Ineke’s creations at Anthropologie.

If you have a bit more cash and this uninspired person tends toward the grown-up and classic in other areas of her life, you can spring for the sleek luxury of a sampler from the London-based nice line Ormonde Jayne ( www.ormondejayne.com). If she can’t keep track of her perfume because she’s too busy writing her cyberpunk novel and training circus dogs, throw caution to the winds and order Etat Libre d’Orange’s grand coffret full of racy jokes and strange beauty. She probably won’t like them all, but she will never be bored by perfume again.

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